Rethinking Bamboo: A Native Alternative to an Invasive Exotic

Rethinking Bamboo: A Native Alternative to an Invasive Exotic

June 4, 2024

When it comes to bamboo, there seems to be no middle ground – people either love it or hate it. As a gardener, I can certainly understand both perspectives. Bamboo can provide a wonderful sense of lush, exotic privacy in the landscape. Its tall, graceful canes sway beautifully in the breeze, creating a serene and tranquil atmosphere. And the fact that it’s an evergreen plant means you get that tropical, jungle-like vibe year-round. What’s not to love?

Well, the problem is that bamboo can be incredibly invasive, spreading far beyond its intended bounds through its vigorous underground rhizomes. Those same rhizomes that give bamboo its fast growth and dense thickets also make it incredibly difficult to control once it gets established. Before you know it, bamboo can take over your entire yard, encroaching on neighboring properties and even damaging infrastructures like sidewalks and foundations. It’s no wonder so many gardeners have a strong aversion to this plant.

However, I don’t think we need to completely write off bamboo, especially if you’re looking to incorporate some of its unique aesthetic qualities into your landscape. The key is being selective about the type of bamboo you choose and taking the proper precautions to ensure it doesn’t become a problem. There are actually several species of bamboo, and the ones labeled as “running” or “clumping” have very different growth habits.

Rethinking Bamboo: A Native Alternative to an Invasive Exotic

The running bamboos are the ones that give this plant such a notorious reputation. Their aggressive rhizomes can spread dozens of feet in a single season, popping up in unexpected places and proving incredibly difficult to eradicate. These are the types of bamboo that gardeners should avoid at all costs, unless you have the time, energy and resources to devote to constant maintenance and containment.

But the clumping bamboos are a different story. These varieties grow in a more controlled, compact manner, with rhizomes that stay relatively close to the parent plant. While they can still spread over time, it’s at a much slower and more manageable pace. Clumping bamboos make excellent focal points, privacy screens or boundary plantings, as long as you are willing to do a little pruning and maintenance every so often.

One of the best clumping bamboos for our region is the Fargesia species, also known as “umbrella bamboo.” These plants typically max out at around 10-15 feet tall, with graceful, arching canes and delicate, fern-like foliage. Fargesia bamboos are hardy to USDA Zones 5-9, making them well-suited for growing in Maryland. Another great option is the Chusquea genus, which can reach 15 feet tall and has a more upright, vase-shaped habit. Both of these clumping bamboos are easy to maintain and won’t spread aggressively throughout your yard.

Rethinking Bamboo: A Native Alternative to an Invasive Exotic

If you’re really craving the look of bamboo but want to err on the side of caution, there are also some wonderful native grasses that can provide a similar aesthetic. One great example is the switch cane (Arundinaria gigantea), which is the only bamboo native to the Eastern United States. This grass can grow up to 15 feet tall, with slender, woody stems and delicate, willow-like foliage. While it is technically a running bamboo, switch cane has a much more manageable growth habit compared to its exotic cousins.

Another native option is the river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), which features flat, oat-like seed heads that resemble miniature bamboo plumes. This clumping grass typically reaches 3-5 feet tall and wide, making it a great choice for mass plantings or mixed borders. Both switch cane and river oats provide valuable habitat and food sources for native wildlife, in addition to their ornamental appeal.

So if you’re set on incorporating the look of bamboo into your landscape, I’d highly recommend exploring some of these more well-behaved, native alternatives. Not only will they give you that lush, tropical vibe you’re going for, but you’ll also be supporting local ecosystems and biodiversity. Plus, you’ll avoid the endless headache of trying to control a rampant, invasive plant.

Rethinking Bamboo: A Native Alternative to an Invasive Exotic

Of course, if you do decide to go with a clumping bamboo species, there are still some important considerations to keep in mind. Even though they may not spread as aggressively, bamboos still require some vigilance and maintenance to keep them looking their best. Here are a few tips:

  • Plant bamboo in a contained area. While clumping varieties may not take over your entire yard, they can still slowly creep outwards over time. Planting them in a raised bed or surrounding them with a physical barrier, like deep-set edging or a root barrier, can help keep them confined to their designated space.
  • Provide good drainage. Bamboos prefer consistently moist, well-draining soil. If the roots sit in waterlogged conditions for too long, it can lead to rotting and declining plant health. Amending the soil with compost or other organic matter before planting can help ensure adequate drainage.
  • Fertilize regularly. Bamboos are heavy feeders and will benefit from annual applications of a balanced, slow-release fertilizer. This will help encourage vigorous, healthy growth and discourage any unwanted spread.
  • Prune and thin the culms. Over time, the clumps of bamboo can become overcrowded, which can restrict air flow and light penetration. Use pruners or loppers to selectively remove some of the older, weaker canes, opening up the interior of the plant. This will maintain an airy, attractive appearance.
  • With proper planning and diligent maintenance, even running bamboos can be successfully grown in a home garden. But for most gardeners, the clumping varieties or native bamboo alternatives are likely the way to go if you want to enjoy the look of this unique plant without the constant threat of an invasive takeover.

Rethinking Bamboo: A Native Alternative to an Invasive Exotic

So the next time you’re considering adding bamboo to your landscape, take a step back and really think about which type would be the best fit. Do your research, prepare the planting area accordingly, and be ready to put in a little extra work to keep your bamboo looking its best. With a little care and consideration, you can absolutely incorporate this stunning plant into your garden in a responsible and sustainable way.

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    About the Author

    Cameron

    Cameron is a plant journalist who loves everything green and eco-friendly. He writes for various publications about the benefits of native plants, such as enhancing biodiversity, reducing water use, and supporting pollinators. He also runs a special column about Native Plants of the Month on Askseeds.com Cameron believes that everyone can make a positive difference one seed at a time.

    RELATED READING

    SPECIES SPOTLIGHT

    NATIVE PLANT OF THE MONTH

    LEAFY LETTERS

    Join our Newsletter

    Become an integral part of our community of fellow plant lovers, where every edition is a botanical adventure waiting to unfold. Discover exclusive gardening tips, stay updated on the latest plant trends and answering readers questions on Ask Seeds!

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